It started with a column in the Wall Street Journal by Aatish Taseer which led to a bit of an exchange on Twitter between some Indians, including Shashi Tharoor, former Indian minister of state for external affairs and the Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram on one side, and some Pakistanis, including Ejaz Haider, a prominent editor in Pakistan, on the other. The banter on Twitter soon spilled over to op-eds in newspapers. Responding to Tharoor’s column Delusional liberals (Deccan Herald July 21,2011), Ejaz Haider, one of those so described as a delusional Pakistani liberal, wrote:
“Shashi Tharoor is no fool. Quite the contrary. He is a high achiever and combines brilliance with great marketing skills. So, why would he pen an article in the Deccan Chronicle that seems, on the surface, to be fairly lightweight? Precisely because he is smart. He knows perception-formation is important; he also knows reinforcing perceptions is crucial; and he knows the basic rule about perceptions: They are quick to form but resistant to change.” (It’s not just Mr. Tharoor; The Express Tribune, Pakistan July 26,2011)
Ejaz Haider was spot-on: it takes one to know one. He is a practitioner of the same art. His recent column The Marabar Caves complex (The Express Tribune August 3,2011) takes the exercise up a notch by seeming to blatantly portray a dangerous and negative perception of a minority community that is under siege in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Ejaz Haider is no fool. He wrote what prima facie appears to be an ‘investigative’ op-ed piece, but sticking to his basic charge against Tharoor that perception formation is important, he has broad-brushed the Shiite Hazara people, literally as Iran’s fifth column in Pakistan. In a ruthless but crude manner a target seems to have been painted on the back of the Hazaras — a community, which according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has lost over 300 members in targeted killings by jihadists, between 1999 and May 2011.
Shashi Tharoor had concluded his column by saying:
“As this otherwise minor editorial spat demonstrates, Indians need to put aside their illusions that there are liberal partners for us on the other side of the border who echo our diagnosis of their plight and share our desire to defenestrate their military. Nor should we be surprised: a Pakistani liberal is, after all, a Pakistani before he is a liberal.”
I submit that Tharoor made the same mistake by classifying at least Ejaz Haider as a liberal that many did with General Parvez Musharraf, when the latter’s pictures holding two dogs were splashed around the world after his 1999 coup d’état. Just as not every dog-cuddling, imbibing and smoking individual is a progressive, not everything that passes for English-language press in Pakistan is liberal, or for that matter, Pakistani.
Many moons ago the Pakistani Army used to be a state within the state, but not any more. The Army is now a state unto itself with some civilian appendages. Many such appendages are working in sync with, if not in the pay of, the Army and some journalists are no exception and work within the ideological framework of the Army, not Pakistan. Calling them Pakistani liberals is a misnomer and diverts attention away from the fact they echo the party line of the behemoth that has a chokehold on Pakistan and its people.
When Ejaz Haider wrote an open letter to General Shujat Pasha, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate about the murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad, many were quick to shower praise on him for his ‘bold stand’ and others went on to sympathize with him for an imaginary persecution at the hands of the ISI. I had cautioned then that just like the pro-judiciary movement was used by the ISI as an ablution ritual to restore ‘credibility’ of many of its associates, including the media personalities, the said open letter was designed to give Haider credibility as a supposedly liberal voice.
In his latest August 3 column, virtually blaming the Hazaras for bringing it upon themselves, Ejaz Haider concludes by saying that “it has become a war of narratives and everyone persists with theirs, deepening the existing fault-lines”. A war of narratives it is indeed, in which, it would seem, Haider has parroted the military’s line. Anyone who has followed Haider’s writings knows that his stories seem to mirror the opinion of the Pakistan Army and this latest column appears to be no exception.
Haider uses anecdotal reports, ostensibly obtained from Hazaras themselves, that Iran is funding the predominantly Shiite Hazara community to use them as proxy. He writes:
“In June this year, about 170 people from the Hazara community were invited by the Iranian government to attend the death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini. “They were feted by the Iranian government. We don’t know what they were told but this year’s Shab-e Barat saw the biggest-ever celebration known to Quetta’s Shia community. They cut a 40 lbs cake, a novelty. It was an aggressive show,” a Hazara told me.”
He goes on to quote the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, Abdul Khaliq Hazara:
“They play in the hands of Iran, our religious leaders … Funds come from Iran through their consulate and we see this action-reaction pattern which takes toll of Hazara life.”
What takes the cake is his use of one single example of a Deobandi prayer leader Abdul Karim Mengal’s assassination, which he claims was the work of the men linked to a Shiite cleric Allama Maqsood Domki.
Amazing that someone on an investigative journey to Quetta would not know the history of the city and its diverse population. The Iranian consulates and cultural centres (called Khana-e-Farhang-e-Iran) are a rough equivalent of the Goethe institutes or Confucius centres and have been functional in several major cities of Pakistan long before any Ayatollah appeared on Iran’s political horizon and were much more high profile venues during King Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s days than today. And Quetta-Taftan-Zahedan trade and pilgrimage route has been functional even before the Indo-Pakistan partition. This is an allegation very similar to the one levelled against ‘scores’ of Indian consulates operating in Afghanistan and allegedly supporting the Pakistani Taliban, no less.
Interestingly, Haider makes no mention of the massive presence of the Afghan Taliban in Quetta, especially the Quetta Shura, or the Lashkar-e-Jhangavi (LeJ) in Quetta and its vicinity such as Mastung. He completely glosses over the massive funding received by these terrorist outfits from the Arab governments and individuals. Anyone familiar with this garrison city’s grid plan and its post-1978 demographics would find it hard to believe that the thugs of the Quetta Shura and the LeJ — or for that matter Iranian proxies — can move in or around the city without the knowledge of the security establishment. In addition, any movement of the Taliban to Karachi or northwards to South Waziristan is incomprehensible without the knowledge of the security agencies.
Quetta has a population of roughly a million people. But more importantly the city is home to the Pakistan Army’s XII Corps, ISI regional headquarters, the Balochistan Frontier Corps, a major army selection and recruitment centre and the Pakistan Air Force base Samungli. And last, but not the least, the Pakistan Army’s Command and Staff College, literally a required stepping stone to senior leadership in the army, is at Quetta. Again, this surely is not lost on Ejaz Haider, who, by his own acknowledgement, has taken army-sponsored trips to terror-affected areas and has access to the Army leadership. With the wherewithal at the disposal of the Army it is unimaginable that all they could offer Haider was a single case of Karim Mengal’s killing and that too without a smoking gun. An Iran-sponsored cake is the biggest terrorist threat to the peace in Pakistan? Ayatollahs are no saints but how much more pathetic can the Army’s narrative get?
But Ejaz Haider’s technique here is simple and tried and tested one: paint the genocide of a minority group as a tit-for-tat sectarian warfare and charge the weaker group of getting foreign help. He has written similarly about the Shiite enclave of Upper Kurram Agency, which has been resisting the Taliban onslaught since 2007. In branding the conflict as perennial sectarian battles, he essentially makes a case for the state machinery to not act in defence of the defenceless — a policy that the Pakistan Army has applied in Kurram Agency.
It is actually a quadruple whammy for the persecuted minority communities. First, the state-sponsored terrorists like the LeJ and its assorted incarnations are unleashed on them. Second, the state either takes no action or attacks the victims (e.g. Army airborne attack on Shiite tribes of Kurram Agency in August 2010). Third, it dilutes or pre-empts any national or international sympathy that may appear for the besieged minority populations. Fourth, it creates the spectre of Iranian involvement making the US and allied forces suspicious of, if not outright allergic to, these anti-Taliban groups.
The net result is a perception that the victims have only themselves to blame for their misery, thus justifying and legitimising their slaughter at the hands of Pakistani states’s jihadist assets. I would hope that it is not an op-ed writer’s job to order a hit against a community or an individual (though in Pakistan that too has happened). Creating the perception of the aggrieved party as an aggressor sets the stage for its ostracisation and physical elimination. We saw in the case of Salmaan Taseer’s assassination that a frenzy of zealotry was created in the media against him. No one actually called for his murder but many pitched-in to make him a marked man — a perception that was quick to form but hard to shake off.
Which is why, no matter how preposterous and flimsy Haider’s allegations are, they must not go unanswered. For Haider is not naive. On the contrary, he knows exactly what he is doing. Why, indeed, this attention on Quetta in a lightweight yet ominous column? For the answers one has to look at the domestic, regional and international dynamics. Just like Shashi Tharoor wrote his piece with one eye on the 2014 elections and domestic consumption, while also playing to the international gallery where Pakistan runs the risk of becoming the first nuclear-armed failed state and a pariah, Ejaz Haider and the Army have several birds to hit with their one LeJ stone.
The army’s primary objective is a demographic change in Quetta. The HRCP and other watchdog groups have documented a significant migration of the Hazaras out of Quetta due to direct threat to their lives and livelihoods. Killings and kidnappings for ransom have forced them to sell houses and properties and move out of Quetta. The objective is to replace them with the state-sponsored jihadist entities like the LeJ and its affiliates.
The influx of the jihadists serves multiple purposes. First, it buttresses the support for the Taliban of the Quetta Shura and allied groups. Among the top few points of contention between the US and Pakistan is the future of the Quetta Shura. The US wants either an opening to talk to the Shura or better yet its elimination — neither of which are acceptable to Pakistan. It is in this context that the movement of the US diplomats has been curtailed, especially in Balochistan and around Quetta. According to a US source, security situation is being cited by the Pakistanis to disallow their movement, despite a recent ‘lifting of ban’ on their travel outside Islamabad.
The same security situation and chaos thus created serves to continue providing safe haven to the Quetta Shura in a thickly populated city, which is difficult to target via drones. This would literally be a repeat of the Army operation in Central Kurram that has been used to disperse and protect the Haqqani network assets among the general population and the camps for displaced people. This cues towards Pakistan’s intent to continue resisting the US pressure to act against the key Afghan Taliban and associated militant groups.
Last but not the least, the ultimate goal apparently is to pitch the LeJ and other terrorist outfits against the Baloch nationalist and separatist movement. The Pakistan Army has come under increasing domestic and international pressure for its genocide of the Baloch. The HRCP and the Human Rights Watch have held the Army responsible for what are tantamount to crimes against humanity. As the US and international pressure ratchets up for Pakistan to withdraw support to the Afghan Taliban groups, sanctions based on multiple grounds remain a tool available to the international community. Along with nuclear proliferation and black-marketing of fissile material, state terrorism against its own people is one such area that is bound to put the Army in a hot seat. This is where Pakistani establishment thinks that its jihadist proxies will come into play.
Writers subservient to the military-industrial complex of Pakistan appear willing to literally throw the vulnerable to the wolves. The only thing more despicable is the silence of the liberal lambs at the outrage peddled as objective journalism. The only thing more despicable is the silence of the liberal lambs at the outrage peddled as objective journalism.
Dr Mohammad Taqi is a columnist for the Daily Times, Pakistan. He tweets at http://twitter.com/mazdaki